In April 2011, members of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) agreed to organize their own Library Consumer Advocacy Caucus. We find that some legal information vendors have significantly harmed our libraries – and allied consumers – through unfair and anticompetitive business practices. Voluntary consumer guidelines do not apply to many of the practices, but even where they do, these vendors have violated them for more than a decade. We will therefore seek government remedies. On July 25th, we will meet in Philadelphia to decide our form of organization.
Earlier this year, AALL hosted a Vendor Colloquium that left consumer advocacy almost entirely unaddressed. The Colloquium concerned “Creating, Disseminating, Using, and Preserving Legal Information in Challenging Times.” A Colloquium Working Group developed an Action Plan to implement AALL’s “Shared Principles For Law Librarians and Legal Information Vendors.” The Working Group invited AALL members to comment on the Action Plan.
Thank you for inviting AALL members to comment on your Action Plan. The undersigned are among AALL members who want AALL to revitalize its commitment to consumer advocacy. Some of us bring to our recommendation many years of experience as AALL members and law librarians.
We appreciate your dedication to improving librarian-vendor relations, and we support goals designed to aid communication. However, the Action Plan has a serious shortcoming: it falls far short of AALL’s promise as a consumer advocate. The “partnership” ideal endorsed in the Action Plan appears to apply to all legal information vendors, whether or not they have extensive histories of anti-consumer practices. In fact, you do not define “partnership” or “consumer advocacy,” and appear to limit consumer advocacy to discussion during an Annual Meeting program. At any rate, we support the idea of engaging smaller legal publishers, under Goal II-C, and any other legal-content vendors who follow consumer and antitrust law in their business practices.
Even before the ongoing economic crisis, law libraries could not afford the cumulative costs of anticompetitive and unfair business practices by some vendors of legal and law-related information. In 2006, an attorney for the Information Access Alliance testified on skyrocketing subscription prices and unreasonable contractual constraints from single-firm, anticompetive conduct. Although his testimony concerns harm to research libraries from “bundling” of scholarly journals, the same type of conduct has harmed law libraries when they renew their subscription contracts. As described in a recent Library Journal interview, evidence also abounds of unfair business practices. A few of the many examples include:
- opaque, confusing, and deceptive pricing models for online subscriptions and for “bundled” portfolios of print or print-and-online subscriptions;
- non-disclosure demands in contracts;
- inclusion of more or fewer titles than requested in bundled subscription contracts, with inadequate or no options for correction;
- serious, widespread failures in editing, indexing, updating, and revising of publications
The business misconduct has reached a scale of devastating impact on law libraries. It has imperiled not just the quality and integrity of their services, but also, in many cases, their long-term sustainability.
Law libraries and allied consumers of information services should work together to remedy anti-consumer practices within the industry. They can do so without violating antitrust law. They may act in coalition to petition appropriate governmental bodies for remedies vital to their collective interests, and to the public interest.
We would rally behind AALL if it did everything possible to advance this vision of consumer advocacy. We would welcome collaboration with AALL’s leaders. So we recommend, as a first step, that AALL’s Executive Board embrace our proposal of a more robust consumer advocacy than AALL has pursued. At your request, we would be happy to elaborate on the proposal. We also ask that a future Colloquium focus on the means and goals of consumer advocacy, with digital or phone-conferencing access to all members, and a full, open record of proceedings.
If you intend to sign the comment, please contact Michael Ginsborg at firstname.lastname@example.org before 1 p.m. EST on July 15th, when we will submit it to Margie Maes, AALL’s Vendor Liaison.
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